CSFF Blog Tour: Romans and Druids

In Sigmund Brouwer’s speculative series Merlin’s Immortals, Druids are the villains – lying, thieving, manipulative, murdering villains. This, of course, is only fiction. The real Druids were much worse.

The Druids regarded it as unlawful to commit their teachings to writing. The oldest accounts of them come to us through a third party – a culture with a written language, with historians and learned men, with absolutely no compunction about writing down Druid doctrines, a culture that came into contact with the Gauls and their Druids.

In other words, the Romans.

Julius Caesar waged the Gallic Wars for eight years, finally subduing Gaul and its Celtic tribes. He wrote what is the oldest description of the Druids on record, about fifty years before the birth of Christ. To quote his Gallic Wars:

[The Druids] are engaged in things sacred, conduct the public and the private sacrifices, and interpret all matters of religion. … [T]hey determine respecting almost all controversies, public and private; and if any crime has been perpetrated, if murder has been committed, if there be any dispute about an inheritance, if any about boundaries, these same persons decide it; they decree rewards and punishments; if any one, either in a private or public capacity, has not submitted to their decision, they interdict him from the sacrifices. This among them is the most heavy punishment. Those who have been thus interdicted are esteemed in the number of the impious and the criminal: all shun them, and avoid their society and conversation, lest they receive some evil from their contact; nor is justice administered to them when seeking it, nor is any dignity bestowed on them. …

The Druids do not go to war, nor pay tribute together with the rest; they have an exemption from military service and a dispensation in all matters. … They wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another … They likewise discuss and impart to the youth many things respecting the stars and their motion, respecting the extent of the world and of our earth, respecting the nature of things, respecting the power and the majesty of the immortal gods.

Later Caesar got into their “superstitious rites”, writing that the Gauls would employ the Druids to “sacrifice men” to the gods – usually criminals, but when necessary, the innocent, too.

Other Romans rendered similar accounts of human sacrifice. Tacitus called the Druids’ sacrifices “inhuman rites” that involved spilling the blood of captives; Lucan, describing a sacred site of the Druids encountered by Julius Caesar, wrote: “Interlacing boughs enclosed a space of darkness and cold shade, and banished the sunlight from above. … Gods were worshipped there with savage rites, the altars were heaped with hideous offerings … On these boughs [of the trees in the sacred grove] birds feared to perch; in those coverts wild beasts would not lie down.”

The Romans – who, for all their evils, were clean at least of the evil of human sacrifice – were probably truly appalled by the rites of the Druids. But it was also, no doubt, their own self-interest that led them to attack Anglesey, an island off the coast of Wales long known as the center of the Druidic religion. After winning the battle of Anglesey, the Romans – showing the thoroughness that built the Roman Empire – destroyed the sacred groves on the island.

It was the Gospel, preached in Europe, that finally ended the influence and unceasing cruelty of the Druids. But it was the Romans who struck the first blow. And so, in such mysterious ways, does God work His will, judging righteously.